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US media examines country’s failures over first 70 days of coronavirus outbreak

(People's Daily Online)    18:46, April 16, 2020

A screenshot of the article

Editor’s note:

Following the rampant spread of COVID-19 across the United States, a nation which has more expertise, resources, plans and epidemiological experience than most other countries in the world, the death toll caused by the lethal virus has topped global rankings, and the growing number is expected to surpass that in the wars of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

Investigating the reason behind the US’ failure to curb the spread of COVID-19, the Washington Post issued a lengthy and detailed report titled The U.S. was beset by denial and dysfunction as the coronavirus raged on April 4, which retraces the failures over the first 70 days of the coronavirus crisis, and is based on 47 interviews with administration officials, public health experts, intelligence officers and others involved in fighting the pandemic.

The article further noted that the US’ failure lies in a breakdown in efforts to develop a diagnostic test that could be mass produced and distributed across the country, as well as the US government’s dysfunction and politicians’ denial of the virus, despite constant warnings from China and other nations. The article concluded that from the Oval Office to the CDC, political and institutional failures cascaded through the system and opportunities to mitigate the pandemic were lost.

Below is an abbreviated version of the original article.

By the time Donald Trump proclaimed himself a wartime president — and the coronavirus the enemy — the United States was already on course to see more of its people die than in the wars of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

The country has adopted an array of wartime measures never employed collectively in U.S. history — banning incoming travelers from two continents, bringing commerce to a near-halt, enlisting industry to make emergency medical gear, and confining 230 million Americans to their homes in a desperate bid to survive an attack by an unseen adversary.

Despite these and other extreme steps, the United States will likely go down as the country that was supposedly best prepared to fight a pandemic but ended up catastrophically overmatched by the novel coronavirus, sustaining heavier casualties than any other nation.

It did not have to happen this way. Though not perfectly prepared, the United States had more expertise, resources, plans and epidemiological experience than dozens of countries that ultimately fared far better in fending off the virus.

The failure has echoes of the period leading up to 9/11: Warnings were sounded, including at the highest levels of government, but the president was deaf to them until the enemy had already struck.

The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China on Jan. 3. Within days, U.S. spy agencies were signaling the seriousness of the threat to Trump by including a warning about the coronavirus — the first of many — in the President’s Daily Brief.

And yet, it took 70 days from that initial notification for Trump to treat the coronavirus not as a distant threat or harmless flu strain well under control, but as a lethal force that had outflanked America’s defenses and was poised to kill tens of thousands of citizens. That more-than-two-month stretch now stands as critical time that was squandered.

Trump’s baseless assertions in those weeks, including his claim that it would all just “miraculously” go away, sowed significant public confusion and contradicted the urgent messages of public health experts.

“While the media would rather speculate about outrageous claims of palace intrigue, President Trump and this Administration remain completely focused on the health and safety of the American people with around the clock work to slow the spread of the virus, expand testing, and expedite vaccine development," said Judd Deere, a spokesman for the president.

"Because of the President’s leadership we will emerge from this challenge healthy, stronger, and with a prosperous and growing economy.”

The president’s behavior and combative statements were merely a visible layer on top of deeper levels of dysfunction.

The most consequential failure involved a breakdown in efforts to develop a diagnostic test that could be mass produced and distributed across the United States, enabling agencies to map early outbreaks of the disease, and impose quarantine measures to contain them. At one point, a Food and Drug Administration official tore into lab officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, telling them their lapses in protocol, including concerns that the lab did not meet the criteria for sterile conditions, were so serious that the FDA would “shut you down” if the CDC were a commercial, rather than government, entity.

Other failures cascaded through the system. The administration often seemed weeks behind the curve in reacting to the viral spread, closing doors that were already contaminated. Protracted arguments between the White House and public health agencies over funding, combined with a meager existing stockpile of emergency supplies, left vast stretches of the country’s health-care system without protective gear until the outbreak had become a pandemic. Infighting, turf wars and abrupt leadership changes hobbled the work of the coronavirus task force.

It may never be known how many thousands of deaths, or millions of infections, might have been prevented with a response that was more coherent, urgent and effective. But even now, there are many indications that the administration’s handling of the crisis had potentially devastating consequences.

Even the president’s base has begun to confront this reality. In mid-March, as Trump was rebranding himself a wartime president and belatedly urging the public to help slow the spread of the virus, Republican leaders were poring over grim polling data that suggested Trump was lulling his followers into a false sense of security in the face of a lethal threat.

The poll showed that far more Republicans than Democrats were being influenced by Trump’s dismissive depictions of the virus and the comparably scornful coverage on Fox News and other conservative networks. As a result, Republicans were in distressingly large numbers refusing to change travel plans, follow “social distancing” guidelines, stock up on supplies or otherwise take the coronavirus threat seriously.

“Denial is not likely to be a successful strategy for survival,” GOP pollster Neil Newhouse concluded in a document that was shared with GOP leaders on Capitol Hill and discussed widely at the White House. Trump’s most ardent supporters, it said, were “putting themselves and their loved ones in danger.”

Trump’s message was changing as the report swept through the GOP’s senior ranks. In recent days, Trump has bristled at reminders that he had once claimed the caseload would soon be “down to zero.”

More than 7,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the United States so far, with about 240,000 cases reported. But Trump has acknowledged that new models suggest that the eventual national death toll could be between 100,000 and 240,000.

Beyond the suffering in store for thousands of victims and their families, the outcome has altered the international standing of the United States, damaging and diminishing its reputation as a global leader in times of extraordinary adversity.

“This has been a real blow to the sense that America was competent,” said Gregory F. Treverton, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the government’s senior-most provider of intelligence analysis. He stepped down from the NIC in January 2017 and now teaches at the University of Southern California. “That was part of our global role. Traditional friends and allies looked to us because they thought we could be competently called upon to work with them in a crisis. This has been the opposite of that.”

This article, which retraces the failures over the first 70 days of the coronavirus crisis, is based on 47 interviews with administration officials, public health experts, intelligence officers and others involved in fighting the pandemic. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information and decisions.

Scanning the horizon

Public health authorities are part of a special breed of public servant — along with counterterrorism officials, military planners, aviation authorities and others — whose careers are consumed with contemplating worst-case scenarios.

The arsenal they wield against viral invaders is powerful, capable of smothering a new pathogen while scrambling for a cure, but easily overwhelmed if not mobilized in time. As a result, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC and other agencies spend their days scanning the horizon for emerging dangers.

The CDC learned of a cluster of cases in China on Dec. 31 and began developing reports for HHS on Jan. 1. But the most unambiguous warning that U.S. officials received about the coronavirus came Jan. 3, when Robert Redfield, the CDC director, received a call from a counterpart in China. The official told Redfield that a mysterious respiratory illness was spreading in Wuhan, a congested commercial city of 11 million people in the communist country’s interior.

Redfield quickly relayed the disturbing news to Alex Azar, the secretary of HHS, the agency that oversees the CDC and other public health entities. Azar, in turn, ensured that the White House was notified, instructing his chief of staff to share the Chinese report with the National Security Council.

From that moment, the administration and the virus were locked in a race against a ticking clock, a competition for the upper hand between pathogen and prevention that would dictate the scale of the outbreak when it reached American shores, and determine how many would get sick or die.

A week earlier, senior officials at HHS had begun convening an intra-agency task force including Redfield, Azar and Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The following week, there were also scattered meetings at the White House with officials from the National Security Council and State Department, focused mainly on when and whether to bring back government employees in China.

U.S. officials began taking preliminary steps to counter a potential outbreak. By mid-January, Robert Kadlec, an Air Force officer and physician who serves as assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, had instructed subordinates to draw up contingency plans for enforcing the Defense Production Act, a measure that enables the government to compel private companies to produce equipment or devices critical to the country’s security. Aides were bitterly divided over whether to implement the act, and nothing happened for many weeks.

On Jan. 14, Kadlec scribbled a single word in a notebook he carries: “Coronavirus!!!”

Despite the flurry of activity at lower levels of his administration, Trump was not substantially briefed by health officials about the coronavirus until Jan.18, when, while spending the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, he took a call from Azar.

Even before the heath secretary could get a word in about the virus, Trump cut him off and began criticizing Azar for his handling of an aborted federal ban on vaping products, a matter that vexed the president.

At the time, Trump was in the throes of an impeachment battle over his alleged attempt to coerce political favors from the leader of Ukraine. Acquittal seemed certain by the GOP-controlled Senate, but Trump was preoccupied with the trial, calling lawmakers late at night to rant, and making lists of perceived enemies he would seek to punish when the case against him concluded.

In hindsight, officials said, Azar could have been more forceful in urging Trump to turn at least some of his attention to a threat that would soon pose an even graver test to his presidency, a crisis that would cost American lives and consume the final year of Trump’s first term.

But the secretary, who had a strained relationship with Trump and many others in the administration, assured the president that those responsible were working on and monitoring the issue. Azar told several associates that the president believed he was “alarmist” and Azar struggled to get Trump’s attention to focus on the issue, even asking one confidant for advice.

Within days, there were new causes for alarm.

On Jan. 21, a Seattle man who had recently traveled to Wuhan tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first known infection on U.S. soil. T

It was also when U.S. officials began to confront the failings of their own efforts to respond.

Azar, who had served in senior positions at HHS through crises including the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the outbreak of bird flu in 2005, was intimately familiar with the playbook for crisis management.

He instructed subordinates to move rapidly to establish a nationwide surveillance system to track the spread of the coronavirus — a stepped-up version of what the CDC does every year to monitor new strains of the ordinary flu.

But doing so would require assets that would elude U.S. officials for months — a diagnostic test that could accurately identify those infected with the new virus and be produced on a mass scale for rapid deployment across the United States, and money to implement the system.

There is no indication that officials sought to escalate the matter or enlist Trump to intervene.

The CDC had issued its first public alert about the coronavirus Jan. 8, and by the 17th was monitoring major airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, where large numbers of passengers arrived each day from China.

Trump was out of the country for this critical stretch, taking part in the annual global economic forum in Davos, Switzerland. He was accompanied by a contingent of top officials including national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who took a trans-Atlantic call from an anxious Azar.

Azar told O’Brien that it was “mayhem” at the White House, with HHS officials being pressed to provide nearly identical briefings to three audiences on the same day.

Azar urged O’Brien to have the NSC assert control over a matter with potential implications for air travel, immigration authorities, the State Department and the Pentagon. O’Brien seemed to grasp the urgency, and put his deputy, Matthew Pottinger, who had worked in China as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, in charge of coordinating the still-nascent U.S. response.

But the rising anxiety within the administration appeared not to register with the president. On Jan. 22, Trump received his first question about the coronavirus in an interview on CNBC while in Davos. Asked whether he was worried about a potential pandemic, Trump said, “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. . . . It’s going to be just fine.”

Spreading uncontrollably

The move by the NSC to seize control of the response marked an opportunity to reorient U.S. strategy around containing the virus where possible and procuring resources that hospitals would need in any U.S. outbreak, including such basic equipment as protective masks and ventilators.

But instead of mobilizing for what was coming, U.S. officials seemed more preoccupied with logistical problems, including how to evacuate Americans from China.

In Washington, then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Pottinger began convening meetings at the White House with senior officials from HHS, the CDC and the State Department.

The group, which included Azar, Pottinger and Fauci, as well as nine others across the administration, formed the core of what would become the administration’s coronavirus task force. But it primarily focused on efforts to keep infected people in China from traveling to the United States even while evacuating thousands of U.S. citizens. The meetings did not seriously focus on testing or supplies, which have since become the administration’s most challenging problems.

The task force was formally announced on Jan. 29.


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